Exposed: how toxic air reduces intelligence

Poison: Children in China’s Shandong province wear masks to keep safe from the smog. © Getty

How can we solve the air pollution crisis? A study has linked pollution to “huge” reductions in our ability to learn and solve problems. Worldwide, dirty air also leads to millions of early deaths every year.

Right now, up to 90% of the world’s population is breathing air with unsafe levels of pollution. The consequences on health have been widely documented, but now scientists have made an alarming new discovery.

According to a study of Chinese people, chronic exposure to air pollution may cause a “steep reduction” in maths and language abilities. In extreme cases, this was the same as the loss of a year’s worth of education.

This year, Unicef reported that around 4.5 million British children are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution – which can impact brain and lung development. And the World Health Organisation estimates that toxic air causes seven million premature deaths per year.

The impact on public health may be immense, but there are some radical ideas for solutions.

Architect Stefano Boer wants to cover Chinese buildings with trees and greenery, creating entire “forest cities” which would absorb carbon dioxide and harmful particulates.

Others prefer more subtle economic and political methods. Some have proposed a “smog allowance”, which would force some companies to pay higher salaries to workers exposed to dirty air, encouraging businesses to clean up their acts. Meanwhile, cities like Oslo and Paris have experimented with simply banning cars from their city centres on certain days.

How can we solve Earth’s air pollution crisis?

Air emergency

Scientific innovation is the way to do it, some argue. Tinkering around with regulations is time-consuming, and schemes which penalise businesses or crack down on cars are unpopular and difficult to enforce.

Not so fast, others respond. Relying on scientists to devise a way out of this mess does not address the root cause the problem: our addiction to burning fossil fuels. We must all make our lives more sustainable.

You Decide

  1. How worried are you about air pollution?


  1. In pairs or small groups, write a list of all the things that you think produce air pollution. Which of these do you think is the most polluting? Would it be possible to live without all of these things. Why or why not?

Some People Say...

“The environment will continue to deteriorate until pollution practices are abandoned.”

BF Skinner (1904-1990), US psychologist, author, inventor, and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The study was based on measurements of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and small particulates where the participants lived.
What do we not know?
If the levels of air pollution in the UK have any impact on the learning and problem-solving skills of Britons. Despite having some badly polluted urban areas, Britain is far less polluted than many other countries.

Word Watch

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Widely documented
According to the WHO, air pollution is linked to health conditions including heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Recurring repeatedly over a long period of time.
The United Nations Children’s Fund is a UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide.
Microscopic particles of solid or liquid matter in the air.
Trying to repair or improve something in a very casual way.
Burning fossil fuels
When we burn oil, coal, and gas.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.